Laurel Canyon

October 30th, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring; Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natasha McElhone

Written and Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Cinematic chameleon, female film icon, indie darling and actor in the classical sense (as opposed to the nebulous term ‘star’) Frances McDormand returns in this dysfunctional family fable set in the Los Angeles area of the film’s title.

Once again she fleshes out a great role — that of a successful record producer, living a hedonistic lifestyle of pot, late night pool parties, an affair with her much younger lover (and frontman for the band she’s currently working with) and occasional studio sessions to deliver the record she’s under pressure to have ready for Christmas.

Unfortunately, that’s where anything outstanding about Laurel Canyon ends. A lot of filmmakers (Cholodenko among them, apparently) concentrate so much on characterisation they forget to give you a new, interesting story. That’s particularly the case when such a great collection of actors has been assembled, as has been here.

Christian Bale has more than proven his dramatic worth time and again since his debut as the kid in Spielberg’s 1987 Empire of the Sun. After her high profile but embarrassing presence in Pearl Harbour, Kate Beckinsale is emerging as a major talent (one Laurel Canyon will only intensify). And Natasha McElhone stormed onto the world stage holding her own against some of Hollywood’s biggest leading men, Jim Carrey (The Truman Show) and Robert De Niro (Ronin) among them.

While most of the main characters are interesting, they’re fairly archetypal, and we can see their individual journeys mapped out miles before they can. Laurel Canyon does itself a disservice by being predominantly about the uptight Sam and Alex (Bale and Beckinsale respectively) instead of the more interesting characters.

Both completing medical studies in LA, they’ve arranged to move into Sam’s mother’s house — a woman with whom he’s never shared a very understanding relationship. Instead of arriving to an empty house as promised, his mother and the scruffy band she’s working with are still there trying to finish their album, and it’s the culture and family clash that provides the dramatic tension (and humour).

In real life, the street of Laurel Canyon (which climbs into the Hollywood Hills) is said to house an eclectic mix of old and new; chipped, frayed inner city suburbia alongside the mansions of rock stars, movie stars and high-powered LA players. The backdrop is important as it’s a parable for the clash between Alex and Sam’s ordered ways and Jane with her freewheeling lifestyle.

But aside from the delightful characters revolving around the periphery of the story (including McDormand’s Jane), we’ve seen this sort of estranged family thing a million times. That Cholodenko and her cast do a more mature, better acted and slightly different slant on the theme isn’t quite enough to justify yet another view on it. In fact, even the rebellious parent versus square offspring gag is as old as the hills — Angela and Mona from Who’s The Boss, anyone?

None of us expect Titanic-style technical brilliance from most movies, but when the picture or sound design is noticeably bad, it’s hard to forgive or forget. Besides one sequence done on a completely different film stock (jarring the flow uncomfortably and making it hard to concentrate), the sound design is terrible, and at times you can’t understand the characters’ mumbled whispering or hear them over the noise of a prop.

Scripting flaws also don’t help. You’ll find yourself wanting to chuckle in places the writer/director hasn’t meant you to, and the end comes so abruptly you wonder if they simply ran out of film and just crammed in a scene that looked to have some closure during editing.

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